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Contact: Judy Holmes

Phone: 415-443-3784

Immediate Release: Tuesday, June 27, 2000
Three CNY universities take bold step in field of human genome research by launching collaborative doctoral program in Structural Biology, Biochemistry and Biophysics (SB3)

With Monday's announcement that the entire human genome has been decoded, researchers at Syracuse University, the SUNY College of Environmental Science and Forestry (ESF) and SUNY Upstate Medical University are poised to use that information in ways that promise to transform medicine in the 21st century.

The three universities are combining forces to participate in the first doctoral program in Structural Biology, Biochemistry and Biophysics (SB3) in the Central New York region. It is among fewer than 20 programs in the United States that include structural biology. The fast-emerging field is critical to helping scientists use the newly mapped genetic codes to find better ways to cure disease, fight pollution, and improve the quality of life for all.

"The SB3 program positions us for cutting-edge research in this new, rapidly growing area, and it demonstrates how multidisciplinarity can work to advance important scientific fields," says SU Vice Chancellor and Provost Deborah A. Freund. "Joining together to actively break down institutional barriers will make all three universities stronger. Together we will have a greater impact on the field than we could individually."

SUNY Upstate Provost Kenneth Barker agrees, noting the SB3 program's influence will be felt throughout the state. "Research and training in this area will continue to grow in importance as the 'Genomics Revolution' exerts its full impact on the research infrastructure in New York state," he says.

Scientists from all three institutions say the joint program will enable them to pool faculty and other resources to apply for major federal funding for research, graduate training and new high-tech equipment that would otherwise be out of reach for the individual departments within each university. They also believe the program will help attract some of the nation's top scientists in the field to Central New York, as well as talented graduate students who will supply the growing demand for structural biologists in the nation's public and private sectors.

"This field is so big that any one researcher or group of researchers can't come at it from enough angles and make a great deal of progress," says Francis Webster, professor of chemistry at ESF. "Progress is made when you bring people into the mix who use different approaches and techniques in their research. SU, ESF and SUNY Upstate each have different strengths to contribute to this field."

The idea for the program was born about three years ago over a lunch conversation between Richard Cross, chair of the Department of Biochemistry and Molecular Biology at SUNY Upstate, and SU chemistry professor Philip Borer, who is the director of the SB3 program. "We already had a tradition of cooperating and of acquiring shared instruments for research," Borer says. "Our conversations led to the formation of an interdisciplinary executive committee composed of life sciences faculty from all three universities, which developed the SB3 proposal."

The Human Genome Project has fueled a national explosion in efforts to establish research programs in structural biology, explains SU physics professor Edward Lipson. "The acquisition of knowledge is exploding in the life sciences," he says. "Universities are placing a lot of emphasis on biotechnology and on the basic research that underlies it, which is where SB3 fits in."

SU plans to begin actively recruiting new faculty with research interests in the field of structural biology, says John Russell, chair of SU's Department of Biology. "The SB3 program will put Syracuse in the thick of the ongoing biological revolution," he says. "An additional, but very important benefit, is that our undergraduates will have the opportunity to learn from these outstanding scientists, both in the classroom and by participating in undergraduate research in the laboratories."

Borer describes structural biology as the "daughter" of the well-established fields of biophysics and biochemistry. "Structural biology is the study of the three-dimensional shapes of biomolecules," he says, "while biochemistry and biophysics focus on the chemical reactions and energy relationships within living systems. Structural biology is one of the bridges that will enable scientists in multiple fields to make sense of the information uncovered by the Human Genome Project."

Genes contain the information that is needed by cells to make proteins. Proteins are essential to all living organisms, but very little is known about the structure of the vast majority of protein molecules, Borer says. The Human Genome Project is providing scientists with codes for tens of thousands of proteins. Scientists will use the codes to determine the protein's molecular structure and ultimately its function.

"In many diseases, something changes in the protein to disrupt its structure," Cross says. "Comparing protein structures in healthy and non-healthy states can help us understand these proteins and give us an idea about how to fix them. I can't think of a more exciting development that has happened in the scientific world in Central New York than the SB3 program."

Major building renovations planned, under way or completed at all three universities added momentum to the idea for the SB3 collaboration-the first of its kind among the three universities. SU recently announced a major facilities expansion that will include an addition to the Center for Science and Technology, which will house new, state-of-the-art laboratory and teaching facilities for the biology department and other life sciences researchers, including many of those involved in the SB3 program.

Last year, ESF opened the Jahn NMR Research Facility, which houses a high-powered, 600-megahertz nuclear magnetic resonance spectrometer-one of only two in Central New York. The instrument was obtained through the pooling of resources from all three institutions. SU houses a slightly smaller NMR instrument.

UMU is in the middle of renovating Weiskotten Hall, which will house a state-of-the-art X-ray diffractometer. NMR andX-ray diffraction are tools researchers use to identify the structure of molecules-particularly proteins, nucleic acids and carbohydrates.